By Chris Woolston, M.S.
After Neil Hancock died, his family discovered an awful secret. Although Hancock didn't have a cassette player or a VCR, piled in his closets were more than 2,500 cassette tapes, along with hundreds of video cassettes and towering stacks of magazines from more than 100 subscriptions, says his daughter, Pat Raines.
For four years before his death at 80, Hancock had been the victim of telemarketing and sweepstakes frauds, Raines discovered. He entered not only legitimate sweepstakes contests but fly-by-night contests that told him he had won big money -- but would only receive it if he quickly mailed in a check. He spent $100,000 on mail-order subscriptions and purchases. But even as he lay sick and dying, Hancock would ask whether his sweepstakes winnings had finally come through.
"He thought he was going to win, of course," Raines says. "He didn't lose his house, but he lost most of his entire life savings."
Hancock's hopes of winning unbelievable riches are not unusual, especially among the elderly. That made him a prime target for a scam. According to a 2011 report from the National Crime Council, illegal telemarketers focus up to 80 percent of their calls on senior citizens. These days, many scams also happen through the computer, not telephone. The Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 300,000 complaints of Internet fraud in 2010 alone. If you've ever been duped, don't be ashamed. You've got plenty of company.
Why are seniors singled out by scam artists?
Criminals have turned marketing scams into a science. Through years of research, they've developed the perfect blend of phony promises and high-pressure pitches to trick people out of their credit card numbers, their bank account numbers, or simply their money.
These crooks are happy to take anybody's money, but they take special aim at seniors. According to the National Consumers League, seniors tend to trust strangers on the other end of the line, and they're also more likely to cave in to bullying.
Con artists use four primary ways to contact their victims: by phone, e-mail, mail, or door-to-door sales. As soon as a person takes the bait, the real feeding frenzy begins, and they get bombarded by other con artists. Some seniors get more than 20 calls a day from shady telemarketing companies, while others can hardly find their real mail amidst all of the sweepstakes entries.
Caregivers and relatives should also be wary if they notice an elderly person gets an unusually large amount of mail and packages or an unusually large amount of charges on checking accounts, Raines says. She realized her father's problem only after finding bank statements showing he was writing about 90 checks every month to companies that promised he was a sweepstakes winner.
How can you protect yourself from marketing scams?
Scam artists can be relentless, but don't let them get the best of you. If you understand their tactics and familiarize yourself with the law, you can spot crooks instantly -- and help put them behind bars. Here's what seniors need to know to protect themselves:
- By law, you NEVER have to send money or buy anything to enter a sweepstakes or collect a prize.
- Don't give your bank account, Social Security, or credit card number to anyone who calls you. Purchases over the phone are safest when you do the dialing, especially when you check out the company ahead of time. If you're intrigued by a telemarketer's pitch, tell the caller you need time to think about it and ask for a number to call him (or her) back. Anyone who refuses is almost certainly up to no good.
- Any legitimate charity will be happy to tell you exactly how donations are used and whether a donation is tax-deductible. Avoid those that use most of their money for operational costs.
- Beware of emails claiming that you can can share in an overseas fortune if you send money to get them out of jail or unfreeze their assets. This is the favorite tactic of gangsters (often working from Nigeria) who prey on people's kindness as well as their dreams for quick wealth. The same warning applies to emails that claim to be from someone you know -- perhaps a grandchild -- who was robbed in Europe and needs you to wire $1,000 or more so he or she can get back home. This usually means an unscrupulous hacker has gotten into the email of a friend or family members and is -- again -- preying on your kindness to try to bilk you out of some money.
- Watch out for this devious scam: A nice-sounding person calls and offers to help you get your money back from shady telemarketers -- and all you need to do is provide your credit card number. In many cases, the caller works for the same company that ripped you off in the first place. Some companies do offer this type of service legitimately, but it's illegal for them to ask for advance payments.
- Companies that offer to fix your credit rating can't ask for money up front either. You don't need to pay a cent until you've seen proof that your record has been fixed. Of course, you can choose to remove inaccurate information yourself at no cost.
- There's no such thing as a risk-free financial investment. Don't trust anyone who guarantees huge profits.
- Don't trust anyone who won't take "no" for an answer. Only fraudulent companies will call you repeatedly after you've asked them to stop.
- Don't be pressured by contractors who come to your door with one-day offers. Compare written bids, and take at least a day to make up your mind about work that needs to be done to your house.
- If you have to go into the hospital or nursing home for an extended period of time, have a relative or close friend house-sit for you or at least check up on it. In some cities, con artists have been brazen enough to falsify a deed to an absent senior's house, claim they acquired it in a "sheriff's sale," and actually sell the house to a new tenant! When you return, check on your house deed at city hall to make sure no swindler has tried to mess with it.
- Be wary of driving accident scams. These occur when a person claims that you have hit his or her car and tries to bully you into paying for damage you never caused to a vehicle. Call the police instead.
The growth of home computers means that many people are able to enjoy the convenience of shopping and investing online. Unfortunately, it also means that con artists and identity thieves have another way to weasel into your bank account. That doesn't mean you have to shut down your computer -- you can still shop and bank online safely if you know what to watch out for. The Federal Trade Commission and the FBI offer these tips:
- Watch out for auction fraud. If you bid in an online auction, be sure you know how the process works, what your obligations are as a buyer, and what the seller's obligations are. Find out what recourse you have if you encounter problems with the sale. Never give your social security number or driver's license number to a seller.
- Guard your credit card. Don't give out your credit card information online unless you know you're dealing with a reputable and secure site. If you're not familiar with the company, check with the Better Business Bureau where the business is located.
- Beware of unsolicited investment advice. If you get an email with a "hot stock tip", delete it. It's not hard for a con artist to set up a phony Web site, send out a flurry of emails soliciting investment in a supposedly hot stock, and then disappear a few days later.
- Don't give out confidential information via email. According to the FTC, a common method employed in identity theft is to email a user and ask him or her to confirm confidential financial information, either by return email or by going to a supposedly legitimate Web site and updating records there. Often, the Web site will look almost identical to that of a legitimate company. Even if you receive an email that appears to be from a bank or other company you normally deal with, call them to find out if the email really came from them.
What can you do if you suspect a fraud?
If a sales pitch seems fishy, don't commit to anything without checking things out. Your local Better Business Bureau should be able to tell you whether or not the company is legitimate.
Another excellent resource is the National Fraud Information Center Hotline 800-876-7060, sponsored by the National Consumers League. Professional counselors there can help you determine if you're the target of a scam and can contact the appropriate law enforcement authorities. You can also order a free copy of "They Can't Hang Up," an informational brochure designed to help seniors protect themselves from fraud -- or you can view the brochure online at the organizations Web site: http://www.fraud.org. The Web site also has information on how to avoid scams associated with the Medicare Rx drug card plan. Just click on Scams Against the Elderly for more information.
To get more general, free information on consumer topics or to file a complaint, call the Federal Trade Commission's help line at 1-877-FTC-HELP.
And remember: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
National Crime Prevention Council. Senior fraud. 2011. http://www.ncpc.org/newsroom/current-campaigns/senior-fraud
Internet Crime Complaint Center. 2011. http://www.ic3.gov/media/2011/110224.aspx
Federal Bureau of Investigation. Senior fraud. 2008. http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/april/seniofraud_041008
Federal Trade Commission. Internet Auction Fraud: What Can We Learn From Consumer Sentinel Data? October 2005. http://www.ftc.gov/be/workshops/internetauction/keithandersonslides.pdf
Tips for Seniors. National Fraud Information Center. http://www.fraud.org/elderfraud/seniortips.htm
Help for Elderly People Targeted by Fraud. National Fraud Information Center. http://www.fraud.org/elderfraud/elderbroch.htm
National Center for Victims of Crime. Telemarketing Fraud Against Seniors.